Gilgamesh in the 21st Century - kindle ebook by Paul Bracken


“The idea for this book began to crystallize in my head sometime around the turn of the century during a lecture that I was presenting for The Planetary Society. In those days, my passion for science was directed toward getting people interested in the robotic exploration of the solar system and the search for life elsewhere, but I was intrigued by how frequently people would ask about God, and the meaning of life. There were usually a few pertinent queries on the presentation itself – maybe something about the cratering patterns on Saturn’s moons, or the likelihood of life on Europa – but invariably God was ushered into the proceedings. People wanted to know if science and religion were compatible. One gentleman inquired as to whether the complexity of the Sun was proof that God existed. Others asked me to speculate on what our fate may be. Why would anyone expect an astronomy presenter to be well versed in such matters?

It could be because astronomers are used to dealing with distances and timescales that are somewhat intimidating to the rest of us. A hundred million years is a relatively short time in the context of planetary evolution but when compared to the span of a human life, it seems like an eternity. As mortal beings, the cosmic perspective makes it difficult for us to feel worthwhile. Carl Sagan’s advice was to “Do something worthwhile,” which was a clever if not altogether satisfying response. 

Generally, I was discouraged from talking about gods and the like since I was supposed to be representing The Planetary Society and there were no supernatural phenomena mentioned in our mission statement. Now that I have a few more gray hairs, I decided to review all of the material that I had collected during those years of lecturing, and it occurred to me that I had the makings of a book – one that would explore those aspects of science that people are most curious about and which have direct relevance to human existence.

I was reminded of my childhood conversations with my grandfather who had a passion for science, but who was also a deeply religious man. It seemed that while science was useful for everyday matters, questions such as “Why must I die?” or “How can I feel worthwhile?” could only be addressed by religion. As a physicist later told me, “Some things remain outside of science.” 

For me though, the religious approach never really worked. When I was eleven years old, I decided that I wanted to figure things out for real. I imagine I was about as determined as the ancient king Gilgamesh when he set out on his quest with the same set of concerns on his mind. “Must I die?” asked Gilgamesh. Forty five centuries later, we’re still asking the same questions.

Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to do a twenty first century reboot of Gilgamesh’s quest? What might he find if he could begin his quest anew, armed with the tools of science and centuries of acquired knowledge? What could be a more interesting theme than the whole matter of life and death itself? And so, in this book, I embark on a personal voyage of discovery to find the answers to my childhood questions about the human condition, and what it means to be mortal. I invite the reader to think about death, not out of any desire to be morbid, but rather because it opens the door to a lot of interesting science, and because our mortality is often what prompts us to contemplate the grander mysteries of life. If, like my dad, you’re tempted to jump directly to last paragraph, remember that it’s the journey that counts – not the ending.”

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